On the Trail with CBLE2

Other global immersion programs can keep their 3 and 4-star hotels, their balloon rides over temples, their drinks by the beach and their multi-course meals. On GIP Patagonia, we sacrificed toenails, patches of skin, broken trekking poles, and boots whose soles detached mid-trip. With our blood, sweat, and tears, we put the “immersion” in global immersion program. It was worth every blister and bruise.  

This is an account of Columbia Business Expedition 2’s (CBLE2) trek through Cerro Castillo National Park.

DAY 1: The Expedition Begins!

The class travels to NOLS headquarters outside of Coyhaique, Chile to sort our gear, collect rations, and pack backpacks. Most packs weigh in at about 50lbs each. CBLE2, which consists of 10 CBS students and 2 NOLS instructors, is transported 2 hours to the drop-off point, where we make camp in a field for the night. Our instructor, Pablo, delivers a memorable and extensive demonstration on the proper technique for defecating in the woods. We learn how to light WhisperLite stoves and pitch tents. Then it’s early to bed in anticipation of our first full day of hiking.

The entire class for GIP Patagonia, pre-departure

DAY 2: Into the Breach

Distance Traveled: Approximately 2km in 8 hours

Our goal for the day is to follow the river through a forest, about 6km to camp. We set a route based on the topographical map, avoiding areas with closely-grouped contour lines, which denote steep elevation gains. Each contour line represents about 20m rise in elevation. What the map does not show is gain below 20m. Nor does it show the state of the forest itself, which consists of lenga trees. These trees, along with thorny calafate bushes, grow thickly throughout the terrain.

The lenga forest
Photo: Katherine Bergstrom

This translates to 8 hours of bushwhacking through the forest, struggling through vegetation, pulling ourselves up 10-12m ravines by prickly calafate bushes. We go as far as we can until the sun is close to setting, and then we make camp. We know that we haven’t made our intended destination for the day (we will later realize that we have only trekked 2 of the 6km we’d set as a goal for the day), but the terrain is too technical to risk hiking in the dark. There isn’t any flat land on which to pitch tents, so we hack shallow pits into the dirt and string up tarps as cover overhead. Our backpacks go under our feet to keep us from sliding down the slope, and we sleep shoulder-to-shoulder, 5 people per tarp. In the middle of the night it starts raining, but we are too tired to care.

Jamie Merolla (’19) executes our first river crossing

DAY 3- And Then There Were Nine

Distance Traveled: 2km in 4 hrs

On day 3, we encounter our first group setback as a team member is medically evacuated. She experienced significant knee pain during the hike the day before, and was afraid that she had aggravated an old injury. In consultation with our NOLS instructors, she decides that she should turn back and not complete the expedition. NOLS instructor Pablo, Jamie Merolla (’19), and Lorenzo Casalini (’19) mobilize as an evac team to hike her back to the drop-off point, where NOLS will collect her and bring her back to base camp for medical examination.

The rest of the group, led by NOLS instructor Mita, will continue to the site where we had intended to camp the day before and wait for the runner team to return to us. Four hours of bushwhacking later, we make camp next to a huge drainage.

DAY 4- And on the Fourth Day, They Rested

The group rests and waits for the evac team to find us, which they do my mid-afternoon. The bad news: after 3 days of hiking, we still haven’t reached our destination for day 1. This effectively means that we have no cushion in our route; we will have push harder to make up the time lost.

DAY 5- La Playa, Found

Distance traveled: ~6km in 6 hrs

For the first time, we split into two student-led teams of 5-6 people. Over the course of the expedition, each student will have an opportunity to lead a team for the day, setting the route, navigating the terrain, and engaging in consultative decision-making. Each team is self-sufficient, carrying enough gear and supplies so that if for some reason we don’t reunite at set meeting point at the end of the day, we can still camp comfortably and safely.

Fortune finally smiles on the group. My team, led by Thirza Koppert (’19), drops out of the lenga forest to the river. We hike along the dry river bed and make good time to camp. We even overshoot our goal for the day, making it further than we’d hoped, which is a real morale booster. Both self-sufficient teams celebrate by washing our clothes in the river, sunbathing, and building a small bonfire on the bank after dinner. Spencer Flasjer (’19), whose rallying cry has been, “Vamos a la playa!” (“Let’s go to the beach!”) is delighted.

DAY 6- Alpinists

Distance traveled: ?km in 7 hrs

We leave the lenga forest to hike into alpine territory, almost 600m up. Now that we are out of the forest and above the tree line, I’m finally able to enjoy the scenery past my own boots. Our route is up through a mountain pass, over a saddle, and down to a glacier lake. The ground is nothing more than loose scree over sheer cliffs that drop into the valley. The higher we get, the more thrilling the view, and the more dizzying the drop. The terrain makes several of us uneasy (especially those afraid of heights), but we press on without complaint. Also troubling is the fact that the tops of Moni Vinuales’s (’19) brand-new hiking boots have started separating from the soles. Pablo has attempted to cobble them back together using duct tape and needle and thread, but it’s a losing battle. We’re not sure what alternative Moni has, since her only other pair of shoes is an old pair of running shoes- not ideal for trekking.

After a tough slog upwards, the glacier lake is a beautiful sight- the blueness of the water is inconceivable. There’s only one problem: there’s no shoreline around the lake, and we have to pass to the other side. There is, however, a ring of snow that has accumulated around the rim, and we hike through it. At one point, Mita says to me, “Elizabeth, please slow down. If you slip and fall into the lake right now, I can’t help you.” I pick more carefully over the snow.

We make camp on the other side of the lake. The view is spectacular- on one side the lake, on the other a cliff that drops down over 100m into the next valley. There is no dirt in which to drive our tent stakes, so Pablo and Mita show us how to anchor the tents using big rocks. We try to find spots next to boulders to shield our tents from the wind, which is gusting forcefully. Once it gets dark, we stay up as late as we can stand in the cold and watch the stars come out. We all agree that it’s one of the most incredible sights we’ve ever seen.   

Before we turn in, the instructors casually remark, “So tonight we need you all to make sure you’re packed up so if the wind gets too high and we have to evacuate in the middle of the night, you can grab your stuff quickly and go.” When we ask if that is likely, Pablo shrugs and says, “Yeah.” Each time the tent is buffeted by the wind during the night (read: several times an hour), I’m up like a shot, waiting to hear Pablo and Mita yell for us to leave. We make it through without incident, however.

DAY 7- Taking the Helm for the Day

Distance traveled: ~6km in 8 hrs

 “Oh [expletive],” is my first thought on day 7. It is my day as designated leader, where I will take one of the two self-sufficient teams through our planned route. Today we are descending back into a valley, down a very steep and precarious rock face, with lots of small, loose rocks. What concerns me when I wake up is the sound of rain- and wind- on the tent. Safety is my primary concern, and the already technical route has become riskier with the inclement weather.

We make it down safely, thanks in large part to Max Esteves (’19) and Ben McCabe (’19), who act as scouts, helping determine the best path for the team. At this point, Mita has traded her hiking boots for Moni’s old running shoes, and is hiking with very little support or traction. I am trying to be mindful of her situation as we hike. Once we get properly into the valley, we are dismayed to find that the forest along the river is much like the one we’ve just left two days ago- filled with steep ravines, huge drainages, and thick vegetation.

I start kicking myself- I feel personally responsible for leading the team through this situation. I’m convinced that I made a mistake, and if I had chosen a different path, we’d be making better time. At one point I turn to Max, an experienced mountaineer, and say, “What could I have done better here? Where did I go wrong?” He looks at me and says, “Hey, this is a tough day. There’s no right or wrong answer. We’re all here making these decisions with you- you’re not alone. This terrain is just difficult.” I appreciate his support, but have a hard time getting out of my own head.

We make it to the designated meeting spot about 10 minutes after the other self-sufficient team arrives. They had a similarly arduous day, climbing way up into the forest in a fruitless search for a flat way forward. During our team debrief, my group encourages me to be a more assertive leader, and to work harder at fighting off self-doubt.

DAY 8- A Taste of the Good Life

Distance traveled: ~8km in 8 hrs

Eureka: my cooking group realizes at breakfast that hot oatmeal, peanut butter, and chocolate transform into an alchemical combination. Try it at home, it’s delicious.

The expedition is winding down, and we are racing towards the finish point. Our goal for the day is to get out of the lenga forest once and for all, and make our way to a lake, where we will camp. The next day we’ll locate the first trail of the expedition and follow it to the pickup point. Easy peasy, lemon squeezy. Probably a close translation of what Icarus said right before he took his wax wings for their first test flight.

Somehow my self-sufficient team is incredibly fortunate, and after a steep ascent, we find a cattle trail. No longer required to bushwhack, we make our way into a series of lush fields, with tall grasses, sweet-smelling clover, and small clumps of cattle. We are giddy with happiness. We arrive at camp at around 6pm, and pitch tents under a grove of cherry trees, which we raid and stuff ourselves with fruit.

Darkness gathers, and around 9pm, we realize that the other team isn’t coming. We assume that they were unable to find the trail that we stumbled across, and had to make camp for the night elsewhere. NOLS protocol dictates that if one team isn’t able to make it to the meeting point on the designated day, they have until noon the following day to catch up.

DAY 9- Sweet Reunion

Distance traveled: ~6km in 10 hrs

By noon, the other self-sufficient team hasn’t yet arrived, and we are starting to worry. Our team has had a leisurely breakfast (a makeshift cherry cobbler made from leftover granola, butter, sugar, and local cherries), filled our water bladders, packed our gear, and enjoyed spotting wildlife- 3 condor and a fox. We are about to strike out in search of the other team, when they straggle in around 1pm, clearly exhausted. They have been hiking since 7am, after a particularly grueling previous day. While we had crossed the river and ventured across the left side of the forest, they had stayed on the right, only to learn that there was no way to reach the lake from that side. They had to backtrack and cross the river to make it to the meeting point.

I ask Spencer what had been the toughest part. He says, “Where we camped, there was no real water source. There was ground water falling down the mountain, but it was more of a trickle than a stream, and we had to dig to get to it. It was getting dark, and I was sitting alone, holding my water bottle in one hand, and tapping drops of water off of a leaf into the bottle with the other hand. All of a sudden, my nose started bleeding, and I realized I didn’t have enough hands, so I sat bleeding until I finished filling my water bottle.”

We give the other team an hour regroup and rehydrate before setting off for our final hike. We hike up into the mountains, searching for a part of the trail that the map indicated would lead us down to a flat plain, where we can walk on a service road out to the pickup point. However, we never find the split in the trail. We keep ascending until close to sundown, at which point we realize we have to get off the mountain quickly before dark. We have already called NOLS to see if we can push back our pickup time for the next day, but they respond: “Pickup is at 7am. We can’t change the schedule.”

Finding our way off the mountain is the first time I have seen either Pablo or Mita a bit unsettled. There is no trail, and we are forced to find our own way down a sheer cliff face. At certain points, we remove and lower our packs down the mountain, and then rappel down without ropes or harnesses, using only califate bushes (we have all taken to wearing winter gloves while hiking to minimize the number of thorns that embed themselves in our hands), or cracks in the rock as hand and footholds. Everyone is tired and dehydrated, particularly the team that has been hiking since 7am. After a hairy scrabble down the mountainside, we reach the plain around nightfall. We ford our last river and hike another 4km up the service road to the pickup point. We make camp at midnight. We have hiked about 10 hours all together; the team that was delayed has hiked 16 hours in one day.

Lorenzo Casalini (’19), looking at the mountain we had just rappelled down

DAY 10- Back to NOLS

We are up at 6am to pack up and ready ourselves for the bus back to base camp. We fill out evaluations and paperwork en route. Once we unload at NOLS, we have to go through gear check, cleaning out tents, washing backpacks, returning unused rations. Then we are allowed to shower for the first time in 10 days. My hair is so greasy that I have to wash it twice before the shampoo suds. Our legs boast constellations of bruises.

We are too exhausted to really reflect on the experience. We head back to Coyhaique to eat our way through the town.

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